Success in the nursery

It’s so nice when things work as they’re supposed to!

A successful grafted cherry tree in the nursery
A successful grafted cherry tree in the nursery

The grafting in Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery finished a few weeks ago, and now we can see whether it worked or not. Excitingly, most of them did!

This is always a time of some trepidation, as we’re faced with irrefutable evidence of the quality of our grafting technique.

While our mentor (and Katie’s dad) Merv is always there teaching and advising, he’s handed over the actual grafting to us – so there’s no hiding any more. The success or failure is ours to own!

So it’s incredibly gratifying to see that our success rate this year was actually pretty good, and definitely better than last year!

Spring is also when we get confirmation on whether last summer’s budding was successful. We always check whether the buds appear to have “taken” before we cut the rootstock back to the bud in late winter, but you’re never really sure until you see this:

It’s also a good time to check whether the establishment pruning you did in on your young trees in winter has produced the desired effect.

The point of making a heading cut (as we describe in Pruning Young Fruit Trees) is to create new branches, in the desired location in the tree.

And here’s an ideal result, where the three shoots directly below the cut have all started growing, creating three new branches in this young cherry tree exactly where we want them.

Success is so satisfying!

In praise of the apple seedling

One of our favourite books from Maine - the apple nerd state
One of our favourite books from Maine – the apple nerd state

If you’ve inherited a garden, or moved into a house with existing fruit trees, there’s a very good chance you won’t know what they are – because it’s a rare homeowner who keeps good enough records or labels to pass onto a new resident!

So, you’ll probably need to do some garden detective work to figure out what you’ve got.

One of the first things to look for, is whether a tree is a seedling, or a grafted tree. Not sure of the difference?

An 8 year old apple tree with an obvious graft union, but it's probably going to become less obvious with age
An 8 year old apple tree with an obvious graft union, but it’s probably going to become less obvious as the trunk thickens with age

Here’s a couple of tips that might help:

  • Look for a graft union, where the scion was grafted onto the rootstock. Any fruit tree you buy from a nursery will have been grafted (unless you’re buying rootstocks from a specialist rootstock nursery), but unfortunately the graft union may be hard to see in the adult tree. If you can see it (there’s a couple of examples in the photos above and below) – great! You know you’ve got a grafted tree, which means it’s a known variety, and then you can start trying to figure out which one. If you can’t see a graft union, that’s inconclusive evidence! It may be a seedling, or it may be a grafted tree where the union is no longer visible.
A mature tree in Tuscany with a very obvious graft union
A mature tree in Tuscany with a very obvious graft union
  • Another give-away is a tree having multiple trunks. Seedlings are often naturally multi-trunked, while grafted trees always have a single trunk. BUT, it’s very common (particularly if a tree hasn’t been well looked after) to see the original grafted trunk plus a number of suckers from below the graft union that have become extra trunks. One of the ways to spot this is to notice whether seasonal changes (blossom, or leaves changing colour in autumn, for example) look the same and happen at the same time on each trunk, and of course whether they all bear the same type of fruit (or any fruit at all).
A seedling apple tree with multiple trunks
A seedling apple tree with multiple trunks

Traditionally in Australia (and more generally in the orchard world), seedlings have been thought of only as a source of rootstocks for grafting known varieties onto.

Seedlings themselves have been considered at best worthless, and at worst pest trees that must be chopped down and eradicated.

We noticed a much different approach to seedling apple trees when we visited America (and particularly in Maine, which must be the apple-nerd capital of the world), where they are more likely to be appreciated for their own potential:

A seedling apple is like a musical improvisation In the world of music, one parent would be the original composition and the second would be the musician. When the musician sets aside the printed page and plays the tune extemporaneously, the result is something new….You may or may not recognise the tune. It may be pleasant to the ear, or it may be discordant. Musical improvisations may be endlessly fresh and inventive…(t)hey may also be stale, cliche and uninteresting. However, whether you like them or not…each will be new and unique.

Same with apples. Some seedlings will be stale and uninteresting, while others will be quite wonderful. Each is an improvisation.

John Bunker, Apples and the Art of Detection
Nan Cobbey's huge multi-trunked seedling apple tree; it might look like it's in Africa, but it's actually growing in Belfast, Maine. From "Apples and the Art of Detection", by John Bunker
Nan Cobbey’s huge multi-trunked seedling apple tree; it might look like it’s in Africa, but it’s actually growing in Belfast, Maine. From “Apples and the Art of Detection”, by John Bunker

So, if a seedling tree is potentially a wonderful fruit tree in its own right, why is it important to know whether your tree is a seedling or a grafted tree?

Because (as John points out), “some seedlings will be stale and uninteresting” – or in other words, completely useless, whereas grafted varieties have all been chosen because they’ve been proved to grow apples with desirable characteristics.

If you’re aiming for fruit self-sufficiency (and if you’ve got room for a few trees, why wouldn’t you be?) then each tree needs to pull its weight by growing the varieties and quantities of fruit you want.

So if you really want to achieve fruit self-sufficiency, you need to know what you’re starting with (as explained in Grow A Year’s Supply of Fruit).

Because there’s no room in a productive and thriving food production garden for “stale and uninteresting” fruit!

Practical grafting

We thought we’d show you a couple of practical ways you can use grafting to save or improve fruit trees – it’s such a cool way of getting functional fruit trees in your garden for free, that we recommend everyone learn it!

Grafting success!
Grafting success!

You can graft at this time of year (late winter/early spring) as long as two conditions are met:

  • you stored some scion wood in advance (that’s what we call the wood from the new variety that you want to graft onto your tree) – it needs to have been collected while the tree it came from was still dormant;
  • the tree you’re grafting onto has started to show some spring activity like growing flowers, leaves or shoots.

The photo above is a Tilton apricot that was grafted on to a plum rootstock.

In fact, the tree was planted as an apricot tree in our orchard a couple of years ago, but then met with misadventure (broken by a passing kangaroo!), so the top of the tree was broken off.

But the rootstock (which was a plum) survived, and put out a new shoot that we were able to graft onto, as you can see in the photo.

You can see there is good contact between the cambium layers of both the rootstock and the scion (that’s the layer just under the bark).

That’s where the new tissue that has bound the two pieces of wood permanently together started growing, they must be touching each other.

Another way to save or repurpose a tree is to regraft the whole tree to a new variety. Here’s one we prepared earlier:

A mature fruit tree that has been grafted over to a new variety
A mature fruit tree that has been grafted over to a new variety

This is a great way of turning a useless tree (e.g. a variety you don’t like, or a tree that produces inedible or dull fruit, like a cherryplum) into a useful and productive tree that will add to your food security by growing fruit you want to eat.

You can supercharge the process by grafting a different variety onto each limb, and turn one tree into 5 or 6 varieties without the expense, bother or space issues of planting and looking after more trees!

Grafting seems very difficult – until you do it. Yes, there are lots of different skills involved, and you need to get comfortable using a knife, and you’ll probably have all sorts of failures along the way – but don’t let that put you off!

The sooner you get started (and we’ve put our Grafting Bundle (i.e. collection of all 5 of our grafting courses) on 50% discount until September 30 to help you get on the way), the sooner you can start practicing!